Experts lament the loss of childhood—the pressures placed upon the young right from birth, technology’s snuffing out of imagination and play—but childhood, it turns out, has far more recently been found. Perhaps, even, invented.
It all began with the 1960 release of Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life by French historian Philippe Ariès. His explosive stance—that, prior to the 17th century, childhood effectively didn’t exist—ignited a firestorm of research stoked by anthropologists, sociologists, behavioral psychologists, historians, and more, in an effort to further explore or disprove his position. The debate has blazed for decades.
In Ariès’ book, essentially the first on the subject, he famously asserts that, “In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist”—children were viewed as small adults with no emotional or legal concerns, and childhood was a social construction as opposed to a biological certainty. It was a pioneering perspective that founded the study of childhood and family life throughout history, and many experts have since sought to build context around his arguments.
It has become a very crowded conversation. Even an attempt to define “childhood” makes it clear that nuance shapes every angle of the subject. Ariès’ perspective foreshadowed an investigation into the developmental conception of life, with stages increasingly elaborated. What had historically been as simple as a transition from baby to adult became a journey from infant to child to youth to adolescent to middle-aged to elderly. The current popular consensus seems to agree that childhood ends at, or right after, adolescence. Even now, a debate rages over when human life begins—next, could embryonic life precede infancy?
And that is to say nothing of childhood’s fluid definition throughout time and within various cultures—with current life expectancy in industrialized Western societies being much longer than it was centuries ago, childhood has experienced a creeping scope. Where a 16th century European 13-year-old was considered adult (because he or she would only live to be about 35 years old), a modern European 13-year-old has just crossed the threshold from child to adolescent, and can remain in a childlike state for decades, having the luxury (an average life expectancy of 78 years) to bask in it.
Consider further the modern differences across the globe when it comes to the legal drinking age, the age of consent, the age to serve in the military, and the age to drive—these laws are popularly held to be official markers of the end of childhood, and there is no one standard answer. It wasn’t until the 1890s that experts began formally studying adolescence—American psychologist G. Stanley Hall first fully defined it in 1904, then Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson blew the case wide open. Even the laws that govern children are a relatively new concept.
But to attempt an understanding about changing attitudes towards childhood, one must traverse the transforming landscape of society from the earliest points of human history via various expert findings. One of the more succinct views comes from anthropologist David F. Lancy, who divides societies between two definitions: neontocracy and gerontocracy. Most current Western countries are neontocracies: societies where children are the most valued members (the United States, for example). But historically, the majority have been gerontocracies, which emphasize attention to the oldest members.
Dovetailing into this perspective is Lancy’s “pick-when-ripe” versus “pick-when-green” outlook. In pick-when-ripe cultures, children aren’t recognized until they’ve mastered smaller-scale versions of adult actions and education—after which they are “picked” and considered individuals. In “pick-when-green” cultures (neontocracies like the United States), personhood is recognized immediately, then carefully cultivated.
Among early hunter-gatherer societies, the birth rate was kept low by extending lactation—though other factors, like poor nutrition and infanticide, also played a part. Simply put, the groups couldn’t risk overburdening the food resources of its ranks, and children couldn’t cover their sustentation through gathering. As historian Peter N. Stearns puts it in Growing Up: The History of Childhood in a Global Context, children, “…were economic liabilities in the first human economy.”
Conversely, children were an integral part of the agricultural economy, which emerged next. Their function among the family unit grew—by about age five, they could perform menial tasks around the house, then advance to working in the fields by their teens. Expectedly, the birth rate rose, though prolonged lactation and a strict attention to reproduction were emphasized—too many children would strain resources. Here also, an additional function of the child emerged: a late-in-life birth was generally planned so parents would have someone to look after them in their old age. In these patriarchal societies, adulthood meant being able to marry and support a family. This is also where class differences had a marked effect—the rich could support more children than the poor. Status was solidified by plentiful progeny, appointments, and alliances—and men were the architects, so a male heir was essential. Female infanticide or abandonment was practiced with regularity among the Greeks and Romans, and in China.
The agricultural era’s pragmatic approach to parenting may seem callous to modern sensibilities, but consider that mortality rates for children at the time ranged from 30-50%. Death was an expected quotient in the family planning calculation, and as Lancy once stated in an interview, even to this day, “In most societies, a mother’s becoming too attached to her infant is a bad thing. The attitude is that parents should develop emotional ties slowly over time, as the child’s viability becomes established.” Often children weren’t even named until they were out of infancy, or the names of deceased children were used on their newborn siblings—underscoring an effort to emotionally disconnect until a child proved to thrive. The atmosphere required children to become hardened to death, as well—it was a very real constant in every family. Children at the time were also simply abandoned, hired out, or given to other families—anything to even out resources. Girls were married off in their early teens, but boys required resources so they could start their own families, which allowed them a reprieve from formal adulthood until their 20s.
The backbone of agricultural parenting was obedience and discipline. Confucianism in China concerned families with educating male children, and underscoring a sense of parental obligation—forgoing individuality for the greater family unit. Laws gave parents free reign to keep children in line—even killing children only resulted in mild punishment. Mediterranean culture at the time also followed suit, rewarding children who exhibited adultlike qualities. Laws existed only to ensure children’s rights to property—integral to carrying on the family line. In short: at the time, children in multiple societies did not have the ability to exercise personal ambition.
Soon, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam would have a marked effect on childhood—the idea of a divine soul in every human being gave way to more protections for the young. Infanticide was condemned, as was the sale of children (laws against both were even passed in the Roman Empire). Religious training was emphasized by all world religions—an early version of schooling that would become mandatory in later societies.
Once the modern era began, the views on—and function of—childhood rapidly changed shape. Society moved from agriculture into industry, and childhood was converted from work into schooling. Thanks to advances in sanitation and hygiene, infant death rates dropped. With the economic balance of the family again off-kilter, birth rates were at unprecedented lows (thanks to the spread of religion, now with moral concerns in the picture). In turn, emotional investment in children grew.
But it was The Enlightenment that truly ushered childhood as we largely know it. Where Christianity had preached original sin, philosophers concerned themselves with the idea that children were not corrupted at birth, but were blank slates. An emphasis on family love involving a show of emotion from every member grew in the mid-1700s, and naming practices changed. No longer did parents wait until a child was guaranteed to survive, or recycle the names of deceased siblings—the individuality of each child was underscored in this shift. Wetnursing—which had been prevalent with families of even middle social classes—was discouraged, and even physical punishment came under fire.
By the mid-1800s, there was a shift from chore-based learning, apprenticeship, and elite-only scholarship into mass education. In America and France, laws were passed in an effort to make it mandatory. New advances in factory machinery made the employment of children less necessary, and early regulations of child labor began appearing. In the East—specifically Japan—primary education became universal, and children were increasingly defined by their capacity to learn. The Russian education system, too, was expanding at the time. This is also where some of the first childrearing guides emerged—expertise beyond a parent’s instinct was now required. And people became fascinated with recording birth dates and ages—prior to the 18th century, as Ariès argues, most people did not care to know, let alone celebrate, these facts. One can see how, with such an indeterminate definition, those in the medieval world might have a different conception of childhood, and age in general.
During the Enlightenment, art was also beginning to mirror the changing attitudes about children, and reflect them back onto society. Whereas, as Ariès noted, many medieval works rarely featured children (and if they did, they looked like small adults), pieces were created in the 1700s that singularly featured children as individual, thinking, feeling beings, and focused on the love and nurturing of family life. Ariès notes an uptick in family portraits with children prominently displayed, underscoring their integral part in the unit—he also specifies a trend towards portraits of dead children rising inverse to the infant mortality rate, asserting that child death was becoming an exception instead of a rule and families valued them enough to mourn them. The French artist Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin was one of the first to focus on painting individual portraits of children as they truly were: immersed in play. In contrast, the infant Jesus was the most commonly-pictured child prior to this time—his decision to paint children at all was quite novel, and his work contributed hugely to the public perception of the young having an interior life.
By the 19th century, painters concerned themselves more with representing emotion and changing people’s perceptions of reality—depictions of the poor young victims of the Industrial Revolution were controversial at the time, but their humanism coaxed growing interest in children’s rights. On their heels were the Impressionists—instrumental in depicting the intimacies of daily life. [ANNE HIGONNET QUOTE(S) HERE]
Literature, too, began changing the landscape of perceptions on childhood. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the religious view of saving children’s souls gave way to a mindset based less on the perils of youth and more on the innocence, creativity, emotion, and pliability of childhood. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 work Émile, or On Education argues children’s inherent innocence, underscoring natural development in order to maintain the most desirable attributes of childhood and evolve into well-adjusted adults. Romantic poets wove ideals of childhood as a force for good, furthering the shift into a cult of childhood that would envelop the modern Western world.
Writers and readers became fascinated by the idea of perpetual childhood—J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play (later a beloved novel) Peter Pan being a prime example. Both Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) were inspired by the authors’ close relationships with children—another window into increasing adult interest in the interior worlds of the young. [GRENBY QUOTE(S) HERE] Alongside the philosophical work, writers like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo were bringing light to the deplorable conditions plaguing children of the industrialized West at the time—leading the way for social reform and
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